Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Last night I sat down and listened to an entire Jonathan Coulton album

This whole complicated business began with the cricket. I’d logged onto The Guardian’s website to see if we’d won The Ashes. We hadn’t. Not yet, at least. In my disappointment, I suppose I lingered and… Well, I swear I don’t know how it happened. It must have jumped out when I wasn’t looking. One minute I was reading about Prince Charles’ political meddling, the next I was listening to Lady Gaga’s new single. In fact, I listened to it twice just in case I’d missed something like my sanity medication. Then I wrote the following comment.
Not made for me, not aimed at me, and won’t make a difference what I say. Therefore: polished, predictable, and completely lacking heart. An old sock hanging from iron railings has more artistic depth that this vacuous jingle for the drone army in control of this corporately controlled dehumanised world.

The last bit was probably laying it on a bit thick but I didn’t have time to make it pithy. Not that I really needed to. As is always the case: some people liked the comment and others hated it. One even put their grievance into words:
I think that's just the standard Guardian-reader response to something they can't be bothered to understand just because it's 'popular'. And i'd love to hear the music aimed at you, since you clearly know what music should sound like. Yawn.

The comment stirred some thoughts, not all of them to my credit, but I did wonder if I listen to too much of the same kind of music. I’d intended to spend the evening in comfort, drawing cartoons, and, as is my usual way, I was planning to plug in my iPad and listen to music as I worked.

My tastes are fairly varied but I am the kind of person who’ll listen to the same album a hundred times before I change it. Lately, it’s been Sparks on constant loop but tonight the comment put in the mind to try something else. My usual listening can be anything from Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, through folky territory with Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Suzanne Vega, Neil Young walking me into grunge and punk, so there’s also The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Talking Heads… That’s off the top of my head but there’s also Ry Cooder, Serge Gainsbourg, The White Stipes/Jack White, The XX, Frank Zappa, The Doors (especially ‘LA Woman’ which is my favourite album and song), David Bowie, Philip Glass, Jean Michel Jarre, Bach, The B52s… Okay, I’m now cheating. I’m just scrolling through my iTunes library but I could carry on like this for hours and no real pattern would emerge except you might notice that I don't like jazz and I’ve never bought into packaged pop. Whatever that ‘popular’ thing is, I’ve never been into it.

Not that I wanted to get into it last night. Lady Gaga: not now, not ever. I did, however, want to listen to something new and there was one obvious choice…

CoultonI’ve been meaning to listen to Jonthan Coulton for a very long time. He’s been lingering in the corner of musical periphery for years but something has always got in the way of my trying out the live album I’d been given a while ago. Sometimes being smart can work against a person and Coulton, I think, suffers more than most due to his association with a certain fan base.

Like many people, the first time I head his music was in the context of a computer game. Some years ago, I was hooked on a game called Half Life 2 on the PC. The end of the game involved a fight with a artificial intelligence which had achieved sentience. The masterful finale, now remembered as one of the high points of gaming, involved the defeated computer singing a song about cake. The song was called ‘Still Alive’ and remains much loved among geeks. This Youtube recording of the game’s closing credits has been watched over 18 million times. That’s eighteen million voices squeaking along to ‘aperture science…’

Even outside the context of the game, the song deserved to be a hit and still deserves to be better known. I remember researching the song at the time and discovering that it was written by a very well established musician called Jonathan Coulton. Yet something stopped me from going on and listening to more of his work. I like to think it was a lack of availability here in the UK but I think what really dissuaded me was that his songs were loved by a certain kind of American hipster, a rare and noble breed of geek that lacks the social awkwardness of their British counterparts. These American geeks had embraced their difference, formed themselves into huge communities in places like San Francisco, where they ran the entire internet whilst listening to Coulton. Actually, forget I said San Francisco. Coulton fans remind me of this great opening to the comedy series, Portlandia

Coulton seems to write, exist, and find his audience within that very specific subculture. Even the live album’s title (‘Best. Concert. Ever’) conveys Coulton’s spiritual debt to his audience and their idiom. Songs like ‘Code Monkey’ and ‘Mandelbrot Set’ aren’t something you’d find on even the most highbrow band’s album but Coulton is of that geek world and you sense that he really understands it. ‘Code Monkey’ may enjoy playing with the clichés of the programmer but he captures the nuances too.
Code Monkey get up get coffee
Code Monkey go to job
Code Monkey have boring meeting
With boring manager Rob
Rob say Code Monkey very diligent
But his output stink
His code not "functional" or "elegant"
What do Code Monkey think?
Code Monkey think maybe manager want to write god damned login page himself
Code Monkey not say it out loud
Code Monkey not crazy, just proud

Confession time. I was once a code monkey and my manager in my second job was called ‘Rob’. The only difference is that I enjoyed writing login pages. It was where I could stick all my silly easter eggs. The boring part was coding the functions that printed out reports... But I digress…

Even given my geekish background, it doesn’t make me an obvious Coulton fan. I loathe ‘funny songs’ after growing up in an era when the TV was filled with men who discovered that a failing comedy act could be rescued if they held a guitar and sang. Or they were failed singers who rescued their musical career by telling jokes badly. They were a strange hybrid capable of both sucking and blowing, perhaps years before their time, and yet to find a new life after Sir James Dyson has fitted them with plastic balls and the ability to vacuum the stairs. And Coulton might be viewed in the same light as those comic-singers except for two problems: his music is too good and his comedy is too beautifully observed.

I’m not going to review every song or quote too many long blocks of lyrics but this example from ‘Tom Cruise Crazy’ is typical.
Tom Cruise is so in love with Katie
At least all his people tell him so
And while he thinks that she's a very special lady
It's probably not the way he'd choose to go
But a lifetime of longing looks would cause too much distraction
Good thing that he's not gay anymore

The lyrics sound better on the ear than they do on the page. Coulton takes utterly bland things of everyday observations and pulls them sideways. The line ‘good thing that he’s not gay anymore’ is perfect example of his twisted wit. The common assumption is that Cruise is or was gay (not a viewpoint I share). However, Coulton is phrasing it ironically, knowing that we probably think the opposite, that Cruise is gay. However, the archness of the song comes from the delivery. This is a singer playing a role, that of the reader of tabloid gossip. It then becomes a geek’s response to banality, overlaid with wit and a kind of far seeing clarity.

And that is the cleverness of his writing that can be a problem. Is it too pleased with its intelligence or is he merely providing a recognisable voice for a generation that have removed themselves from that world? Before last night, I might have said the former. Now, I’m converted. The solo acoustic performance threw the emphasis on the lyrics. The entire album is filled with strong songs, best when they’re commentating on the banalities of life. These are outsider songs, reminding his faithful why they chose to be different. Highlights include the song ‘Ikea’, a hymn to perkily named furniture, and Coulton’s reinventing the Sir Mix-a-Lot song ‘Baby Got Back’, the lyrics given an additional twist coming from the mouth of singer who more likely to sing about the Madelbrot set than his love for the juicier rear.

It’s when he is singing about computers, though, that I begin to feel so oddly at home that I wonder why I never listened to him sooner. As a teenager, I tried to write code that could draw the Madelbrot set. I never managed it. I was lousy at maths and, even if I’d figured it out, the computers were far too slow. Or perhaps I didn’t have somebody to provide a better role model. Music was obsessed with singing about that simple thing called love. Perhaps I needed Coulton back then to explain things to me. Perhaps if I had, I’d have been a better programmer, living in Portland, and washing my yogurt maker whilst singing this algorithm from memory…
Take a point called Z in the complex plane
Let Z1 be Z squared plus C
And Z2 is Z1 squared plus C
And Z3 is Z2 squared plus C and so on
If the series of Z's should always stay
Close to Z and never trend away
That point is in the Mandelbrot Set


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